Defending the Culture

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The Elders’ Council had its last general meeting in October in Amos and Dick spoke to the Nation about what was on the minds of the Elders at the time. Though many different issues were put forward, they all pertained to the preservation of Cree traditions and culture and how they can play a role in a modern Cree society.

Though, according to Dick, there were not many recommendation resolutions that came out of the October meeting, the big buzz was the invitation from the Cree Health Board for the Elders to be consulted on traditional healing.

“They approached the Elders’ Council to have an elders’ council within the Health Board to consult them on the healing process using a Cree traditional method. This is already underway and the Elders have a special group that has to consult with the Health Board,” said Dick.

Though the Elders’ Council that will work within the CHB for consultation is only a temporary group for the time being as the project is in its earliest phases, the Elders themselves are pleased to have a voice within the system that cares for the people. At the Amos meeting there was a great deal of talk about how to use traditional Cree healing methods within the CHB and the social services sector.

While the Elders felt a sense of joy and recognition in now being able to contribute culturally to the CHB, they, at the same time, are wondering why the Cree School Board has not answered their letters requesting a meeting.

“One of the important resolutions was asking the Cree School Board to set up a meeting to talk about the importance of educating our younger generation about the culture. There are not very many programs addressing that right now. Even if the school board is doing something, they are doing it within the parameters of the governing principals of the school board with the non-traditional system,” said Dick.

The Elders are looking to see a program developed either by the school board or by an outside source to not only address the physical trappings of Cree culture, like traditional skills and syllabics, but they are looking for something more comprehensive.

“It’s because the Elders say that a lot of the knowledge that has been acquired by our present-day Elders has not been passed on to the present generation because as we know, most of their time is spent in schools in a non-traditional school system. And, as a result, they are losing their culture,” said Dick.

Because they are so concerned with the loss of culture within the Cree communities, what the Elders’ Council would like to see developed is a program that utilizes the Cree methodology of learning. The methodology that Dick speaks of involves allowing Elders to serve as guides in a situation where an individual is expected to teach themselves as in the old days when there were no teachers.

In the time before colonization, amongst the Crees, teachings were not graded, according to Dick, and individuals needed to learn as much as possible about survival but it was not just about thriving but understanding one’s relationship with the environment.

“Everything is alive in nature – the animals, the plants – so you have to know how to live in harmony with all life forms and how you fit into that interconnectedness of everything. So you have to experience that and you have the gift to acquire whatever capabilities you need be they physical, mental, spiritual or emotional,” said Dick.

Part of the philosophy behind this form of teaching is also so that individuals can develop their own interpretation instead of having it dictated by one source so that those learning do not feel limited by the teacher. Individuality and creativity were also much more respected under this teaching philosophy rather than an authority judging knowledge retention. Part of that Cree traditional learning was also an oral tradition, devoid of a written text to study from; this programming should also be reflective of that.

More so than anything the Elders would like to see Cree spirituality incorporated into some kind of programming as they feel that the current classes on Cree culture are completely devoid of it.

“One of the most important aspects of the tradition was the spirituality and that is the most important thing to learn about your connection to all of the spiritual aspects of life on earth with the Great Spirit,” said Dick.

As the Cree world before the arrival of the Europeans was one where humans communicated with the trees, plants, earth and the animals, the Elders would like to see this aspect of Cree culture retained.

In Dick’s opinion, through adopting Western ideologies, the Crees have taken to “dominating” over nature and other life forces instead of living within a balance of respect and harmony.

So, in keeping this in mind, Dick and the Elders’ Council would like to see greater involvement on their own behalf when it comes to developing a course or programming that would accurately teach and preserve culture the way it should be maintained. What he is talking about however is not the kind of thing that would be based on vintage photographs or journals about Native people but rather the real McCoy, how the Crees lived off the land and their connection to it.

At the same time he feels that people need to be open to listening to the Elders and where they are coming from to be able to understand their perspective on life.

“In order to understand our lives, you have to go back to a time when life started in the universe so you have to go that far too sometimes to really get a grasp of what the Elders are talking about. Its because their knowledge comes from thousands of years of the life experiences of our people before the Europeans arrived. When they showed up, they gave us a different story and a different picture,” said Dick.

Because so many of the Cree traditions were outlawed by the Europeans, the Elders feel that by reintegrating them there is a chance for some community healing to take place on multiple levels.

“It is not for the people to go back and live off of the land but rather to be comfortable where they are and to learn and use the traditional knowledge in every aspect of their lives. How it could help would be up to them to figure out, especially for the young ones,” said Dick.

The Elders sharing their traditional healing methods and medicines with the CHB is a prime example of this but they would also like to see it permeate other areas of Cree life, like justice. Though at their October meeting the Elders had requested the presence of the Justice Commission, due to short notice, the commission was unavailable to attend.

Though the meeting did not happen at that time, Dick said that the commission would be open to talks with the Elders. What the Elders are seeking is a say in the matter of justice and prosecution of Crees who have committed minor offences to see if the Elders and traditional methods could not help in rehabilitating these individuals, particularly in cases involiving alcohol or drugs.

In that the regional police force is also in the process of being formed, Dick said that the Elders should also be looking into that to see if they could have any form of involvement. Though he said that there had been some interest so far, what the Elders would like to see is more traditional methods incorporated when it comes to helping Crees through the system and that Elders would be required for that process.

When it comes to the powers that be in the Cree world, the Elders are also curious as to why there has never been a general assembly devoted to cultural preservation and they have proposed it to the Grand Council and the CRA. Unfortunately, they have not had any affirmative response to starting that kind of a meeting.

Having only received their long-awaited budget funding in October when the money should have come in last spring, the Elders are at least looking to possibly have an Elders/Youth conference in an attempt to reconnect with the youth. Dick feels as though the Elders’ working relationship with the Youth Council is not stable at this point in time, particularly as the Youth Council’s agenda is quite unlike that of the Elders.

“Most of their programs are directed towards a western worldview and what they have learned in schools and what they have learned from the Grand Council and CRA or any legislation of our programs that are available in the province or the country,” said Dick.

As far as Dick and the Elders are concerned, the youth of the Cree Nation are in a crisis when it comes to spirituality as young people have been given so many mixed messages between “outside knowledge” and traditional Cree beliefs.

“The young people still have a choice in what they want to do and every door should be open to them about they need to learn, especially about their identity and their roots,” said Dick.

This is not to say that Dick or the rest of the Elders are critical of Crees practicing any faith they choose to but they are more concerned with ensuring that the legacy of the residential school system does not continue to mar what was once the spirituality of all Crees. Because the missionaries taught the Crees that their original beliefs were “evil” and “wrong,” Dick said that many Natives discourage others from even learning about what the old beliefs were, regardless as to what a huge role they previously played in Cree history and culture.

“When you look at the practices of some religious institutions, they are contradictory to that way of life. It’s not that these religions are bad in any way, it’s good for people if they want to follow them. If you want to learn and live like the non-Native people, that is your choice,” said Dick.

With their new Elders’ Council having received some funding and the development of a new Elders’ Council to work within the CHB, the Elders’ Council is setting its sights on cultural preservation. The Elders are hoping that one day they may regain the important role in Cree society that they once had.

“There are a lot of things that the Elders can do for our communities and it has always been like that in the past. It was the Elders who were the advisors to any group of hunters or families and communities. When these communities were set up, poeple looked up to the Elders. Today they look up to consultants and lawyers – they are the ones who are telling us what to do in our own communities,” said Dick.

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